'Mac' McDonald Shares How He Broke Into the Wine Industry and How He's Paving the Way for Other Black Winemakers

Courtesy Randall Palmer

As a part of our monthly American Artisan series, chef and restaurateur Charlie Palmer talks with some of California wine country's most talented individuals. This month, 'Mac' McDonald of Vision Cellars shares how he got into the industry.

Winemaker Edward Lee McDonald—'Mac' to most—is a man with a vision. The son of a moonshiner, Mac spent his childhood in the rural 'sticks' of East Texas. He was first introduced to wine at the age of twelve when his father’s friend offered him a bottle of Burgundy. After digging the cork out with a pocketknife, Mac drank most of the bottle in one sitting. The next day he confidently conjured a vision of what his life could be, and decided he’d become a winemaker. His dream was made real in the 1990s when he launched his own wine label, a Sonoma-based outfit specializing in Pinot Noir. He named it Vision Cellars. He also founded the AAAV (Association of African American Vintners) in 2002 to help increase awareness of diversity in the wine industry. The organization offers networking opportunities, public pourings, and viticultural communication, helping a new generation of African American winemakers to envision their own futures in the industry.

Here Mac discusses the early days, his education in winemaking, and what he’s doing to help foster a more inclusive environment in the wine industry.

CP: So you’re growing up in Texas and you decide you’re going to make wine. What was the reaction from your family? Were they surprised?

MM: You know, my relatives would say, 'You don’t need to be involved with that stuff. You’re gonna die and go to hell with the drinking.' So it was okay for them to drink my father’s moonshine, but to make wine? Yeah, they frowned upon it a little bit. But it’s funny, I came out to Oakland, and the first person I talked to about the wine business was a baptist preacher. He told me that if I was serious about making wine I should go 'across the bridge.' Well, I didn’t know what bridge he was talking about, so I drove over the Bay Bridge into San Francisco. And I thought, 'ain’t no vineyards here, either!'

CP: And how’d you find your way north?

MM: Well, I went back and started over, and someone told me I should go to Mendocino. At the time Napa still wasn’t really that big of a deal, you know? So I went up there and I met John Parducci (Parducci Wines). And I never worked for them or anything, I’d just go up there and hang around. Some days John would talk to me, some days he wouldn’t. Then after I kept coming back he started talking to me a lot. He’d tell me a lot of stuff about wine, and when I’d get back to my old car I’d write it all down as fast as I could. I still have that notebook today.

Courtesy Randall Palmer

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CP: Tell me about the AAAV (Association of African American Vintners). What was the inspiration behind it?

MM: Well, I was traveling all around the country doing these wine dinners, most of them at country clubs or private clubs, and I got to thinking one day, 'You know, I don’t see nobody who looks like me at these dinners.' I felt that I had enough experience in this business, with all the information I’d gotten from John and the Wagners at Caymus, and with my own success in building Vision Cellars, that I wanted to share my mistakes with the others. But that was the idea behind it, to get more African American individuals interested in wine. Because I felt that wine society was just there for one group of people.

CP: And what kind of advice do you give new winemakers when they reach out to you?

MM: I explain to them that it’s time consuming—I think that’s important. And maybe 50 percent of them will listen to what I have to say, 50 percent won’t. They don’t have to listen, but at least I can help give them some idea. It feels good when I can help someone get to where they want to go.

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Courtesy Randall Palmer

CP: And what about the future? Will Vision Cellars be releasing a 2020 vintage?

MM: I’m in a bit of a limbo. Most of the wineries we work with aren’t even selling fruit, because of the wildfire smoke. I’m doing more blends now so I don’t have to rely on single vineyards, and I like that because I can develop so many different flavors. We’re all kind of stuck on designated vineyards in the wine business, but I’ve kind of pulled away from that, and it’s allowed me to put the best Pinot Noir in the bottle. Now, I’m still not sure if we’ll release any of that, I don’t want to release a product that’s too different from what we normally do. In this business it doesn’t take but one small mistake to ruin your career. It’s everything you’ve worked for.